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Michigan Golf Resort History Series: Thunder Bay Resort Brings Golf to Northeast Lower Peninsula
By Mike Terrell

Over the last decade golf courses like The Gailes, Elk Ridge, Red Hawk, Black Lake, and Blackshire have helped establish the northeast corner of the Lower Peninsula as a golfing destination not to be missed. But, before all of them there was Thunder Bay Resort, which has long been promoting golf in that remote corner of the state.

It started as a nine-hole golf course, which owner Jack Matthias subsidized for years with his building business. "I started it over 30 years ago, and I should have closed it 28 years ago," said Matthias with a wry smile. "But, I'm stubborn and don't give up easily."

Matthias started coming up to the Hillman area as a teenager during the 1950s, visiting his dad's hunting camp. "I fell in love with the area and wanted to stay. After I got out of school it didn't take me long to get back up here permanently. I felt golf would help promote the Hillman area, and at the time there were just nine-hole courses available on this side of the state."

He continued to build homes and run the golf course for the next 18 years, but dreamed about expanding the operation into a full-blown golf resort as he continued to buy adjacent land parcels as they came on the market. With the coming of the golf boom that hit northern Michigan in the mid-1980s, Matthias realized that the time for his dream was near.

Treetops was taking off and so was Garland. Otsego Club would be close behind, and, on the east side of the state, Lakewood Shores was quickly developing into a golf resort. Feeling that the time was right, construction began on a second nine holes in 1989, and two years later a lodge was added. Matthias acted as his own architect on both nine holes, and did a credible job.

"I know what I like, and I like to see a golfer use all the course," I remember Matthias saying several years ago as we rode around his course. "In other words on a par-5, it should take three shots to reach the green, not two."

Developed during the era of "the harder, the better," when Jack Nicklaus built The Bear, Arnold Palmer designed The Legend, and Robert Trent Jones Sr. gave us the Masterpiece, he purposely built the course to play hard. "We followed the trend at that time, but today we've softened the course quite a bit," he said.

Cut through hardwoods, birch and marshlands, the scenic course plays nearly 6,700 yards from the tips and slightly over 5,000 yards from the forward tees. With five sets of tees from which to choose, you can easily find a length that fits your game. Joe Libby, Matthias's son-in-law and the resort's golf pro, says the course is a shot-maker's layout. "It rewards excellent shot quality, and if you're off, the course feels a lot longer than it plays."

Today the resort encompasses over 400 acres with over a mile of Thunder Bay River frontage. In addition to the villas and lodge, which were added in 1991 and 1992, four new chalets were added to the mix three years ago. "We can accommodate 130-150 people comfortably, which is a struggle to keep filled year 'round," he said. "When we first started in this business you could count all the area lodging facilities on one hand, now you would have to take your shoes off."

Montmorency County is one of the least populated counties in the state, according to Matthias. "Even though we have four of the top nine golf courses in the state located here in the northeast corner of the Lower Peninsula, we still don't get the recognition we deserve," he said. "This side of the state has always been thought of as the "blue collar" side, and we've had to work to establish our reputation. It's a slower pace of life here, less crowded, fewer people in a hurry. That's what we sell. All the hustle and bustle is on the other side of the state."

To help bring golfers into the area, Matthias is marketing the Sunrise Challenge. Utilizing Thunder Bay Resort as the centerpiece and host property, it includes three nights of lodging at the resort, two rounds of golf on its course and one round each on Black Lake, Elk Ridge and Red Hawk for a total of 90 holes of golf. Prices start at $77 per person, per day and are based on quad occupancy.

In the off season, which includes the golf season's shoulder month of October, Thunder Bay is best known for its elk viewing and gourmet dinner tours. Via a horse-drawn wagon, or sleigh in the winter, you are transported to a beautiful white pine log cabin where you enjoy a seven-course gourmet meal prepared on antique wood-burning stoves by Matthias' wife, Jan.

"I never thought 30 years ago that we would become what we are today," he said. "It kind of creeps up on you, but like I said, I'm stubborn. Once I get my teeth into a project, I don't want to let go," smiled Matthias when asked where he wants to go next with the development. "There's some open land along the highway where we could develop a small hotel and conference center. It's a thought, but we keep looking at the numbers."

For a resort that should have called it quits 28 years ago, according to its owner, it's a lot like the river that runs through the property, it just keeps rolling along; and growing.

For more information on Thunder Bay Resort and its various golf packages, call (800) 729-9375 or click on to www.thunderbaygolf.com. MG

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